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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 11 (June 1, 1930)


One of the first benefactors of his country is the man who builds a bridge. He would not be appreciated in the Sahara, or in Central Australia, but in a land like New Zealand he is the pioneer whose work is of prime importance to progress and civilisation.

In this land of rivers and streams, gulches and gullies, we owe an infinite deal to the skilful engineers who spanned with steel such canyons as the Makatote and the Makohine and who laboriously built long bridges across the fierce snow torrents that come roaring down from the Southern Alps. Every now and again we hear of such and such a river having been bridged at last, the Mokau or the Motu, or the Waiapu. It marks a stage in the country's advancement; the ford or the punt giving place to the reliable way for wheels.

Soon in the North Island every important stream will have been spanned. It is rather different in some parts of the South Island, particularly far down in South Westland, where you may ride a hundred miles, fording a snow river every few miles—one of them is half a mile wide at its mouth—and never a sign of a bridge, until you come to that high, rickety affair strung over the narrow canyon of the Wills River, near the Haast Pass.

The bridge is one of the first tokens of man's march in such a country as New Zealand. It was just the same in early Britain. The country troubled little about bridges until the Romans came, and then the bridge-builders gave the country arched stonework that lasted for centuries. Here the Maoris of the era of violent contact between white and brown looked with suspicion on the bridge; the deep river that could not be forded or that could only be crossed with difficulty was a means of defence. The shrewd “Kingmaker,” Wiremu Tamehana, strongly opposed road-making in the South Auckland country in the early Sixties; even before the Waikato War began he perceived that a road and a bridge were the forerunners of conquest.

The primitive emergency bridge of the old campaigning days in New Zealand was a bridge of barrels. On such a bridge horse, foot, and artillery crossed the Whangamarino in the advance into the Waikato. Bridges laid on floating barrels were, too, the first means by which Cameron and Chute crossed their troops over the Waitotara and Patea Rivers in the West Coast Wars of 1865–66. The bridge-builders who accompanied the army in the invasion of the Waikato laid permanent bridges over the small streams, but the Waikato and the Waipa had to remain unspanned for many a year. There was a time not so long ago but what many of us can recall it, when only four bridges crossed the Waikato on its whole length of two hundred miles—one at the head at Taupo, one at Atiamuri, and the others at Cambridge and Ngaruawahia. It was an exasperatingly slow job crossing in the old-style punts on wire ropes at such places as Hamilton, Huntly and Tuakau.

The building of the railway bridge which spans the high-banked Waikato at Hamilton will be remembered by old-timers as a particularly difficult task, because of the unreliable nature of the quicksand-like river-bottom. The engineers who sank the piers thought they would never reach sound footing for their lofty bridge.